Politics & Policy

Obama Administration Beats Nuns in Contraception Mandate Lawsuit

(Filmfoto/Dreamstime)

A federal appeals court has ruled against the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious groups who argued that Obamacare’s contraception mandate, and the “accomodation” crafted for the groups by President Obama’s Health and Human Services Department, imposed a substantial burden on their religious beliefs.

The Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Roman Catholic nuns, has refused to comply with the contraception mandate, claiming that it violates their constitutional freedom of religion. The group further argues that the “accommodation” designed by HHS — which allows the group to file a form certifying that they have a religious objection to the mandate, at which point a third-party provides the coverage — also infringes on their First Amendment rights, because they are still required to be part of the process by which employees obtain contraception.

A panel of judges on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the nuns’ arguments, ruling that the group was wrong about what constitutes a substantial burden on its religious beliefs. “Accepting any burden alleged by plaintiffs as ‘substantial’ would improperly conflate the determination that a religious belief is sincerely held with the determination that a law or policy substantially burdens religious exercise,” the judges wrote.

“All we ask is to be able to continue our religious vocation free from government intrusion,” Sr. Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial of the Little Sisters of the Poor, said in response to the ruling.

‘All we ask is to be able to continue our religious vocation free from government intrusion.’

The court ruled that the religious groups, by objecting to the “accommodation,” are actually asking for the right to block their employees from getting contraception even from third-party groups. “The accommodation scheme does not give plaintiffs discretion to thwart their employees’ right to contraceptive coverage by refusing to provide coverage and also refusing to register their objection so the government can make alternative arrangements to free them from providing coverage,” the judges wrote.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty promised to take the nuns’ fight to the Supreme Court, where the nonprofit legal group previously won a lawsuit arguing that Hobby Lobby, a family-owned arts and crafts company, should also be exempt from the mandate. “It is a national embarrassment that the world’s most powerful government insists that, instead of providing contraceptives through its own existing exchanges and programs, it must crush the Little Sisters’ faith and force them to participate,” Becket Fund senior counsel Mark Rienzi said Tuesday.

The Tenth Circuit ruled that the nuns are in a different position than Hobby Lobby, because the government gave the company no choice but to comply with the mandate or pay massive fines.

“In the cases before us, the government has freed Plaintiffs from the responsibility to perform the act they consider religiously objectionable — namely, providing contraceptive coverage,” they wrote. “Nonetheless, the Plaintiffs argue an act they do not consider objectionable in itself — completing a form or writing to HHS — becomes objectionable because it either causes the provision of contraceptive coverage or renders them complicit in the provision of contraceptive coverage.”

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.

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